The third alternative strategy to containment is rollback, in which the United States would seek to weaken China by toppling regimes that are friendly to Beijing and perhaps even by fomenting trouble inside China. For example, if Pakistan is firmly in China’s camp, which is certainly possible in the future, Washington could seek to help bring about regime change in Islamabad and help put in place a pro-American leader. Or the United States might attempt to stir up unrest inside China by supporting irredentist groups in Xinjiang or Tibet.
Although the United States mainly pursued a containment strategy against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, we now know that it engaged in elements of rollback as well. Not only did it try to foment unrest inside the Soviet Union during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it also tried to overthrow numerous government leaders around the world who were perceived to be pro-Soviet. In fact, Washington launched several covert operations targeting China directly in the 1950s and 1960s. These efforts at rollback had only a small effect on the balance of power between the two superpowers and did little to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union. Still, American leaders pursued rollback where and when they could, and there is little reason to think future policymakers in Washington will eschew this policy against a powerful China. However, containment will be America’s most effective strategy by far.
There is a small possibility China will eventually become so powerful that the United States will not be able to contain it and prevent it from dominating Asia, even if the American military remains forward deployed in that region. China might someday have far more latent power than any of the four potential hegemons the United States confronted in the twentieth century. In terms of both population size and wealth—the building blocks of military power—neither Wilhelmine Germany, nor imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union came close to matching the United States. Given that China now has more than four times as many people as the United States and is projected to have more than three times as many in 2050, Beijing would enjoy a significant advantage in latent power if it had a per capita GNI (gross national income) equivalent to that of either Hong Kong or South Korea.
All that latent power would allow China to gain a decisive military advantage over its principal rivals in Asia, especially when you consider that China would be operating in its backyard, while the Unites States would be operating more than 6,000 miles from California. In that circumstance, it is difficult to see how the United States could prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon. Moreover, China would probably be the more formidable superpower in the ensuing global competition with the United States.
But even if China’s GNI does not rise to those levels, and it ends up with not quite as much latent power as the United States, it would still be in a good position to make a run at hegemony in Asia. All of this tells us the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead. That outcome might not be good for American prosperity, much less for global prosperity, but it would be good for American security, which is what matters most.
What Will the Neighbors Do?
Regarding China’s neighbors, the key question is whether they will join forces with the United States and balance against China, or bandwagon with a rising China. Some observers might argue that there is a third option, which is to sit on the sidelines and remain neutral. It will not be possible, however, for countries in Asia to sit this one out. Almost every state will have to choose sides, not just because Beijing and Washington will put enormous pressure on them to choose their side, but also because most of those states—which are much weaker than either China or the United States—will reasonably want to have a powerful protector in the event their security is threatened.
Given the survival imperative, most of China’s neighbors will opt to balance against it, much the way most of the countries in Northeast Asia and Europe that were free to choose in the Cold War opted to join with the United States against the Soviet Union. The reason is simple: China poses a more serious threat to most countries in Asia than the United States does, and states invariably balance against their most dangerous foe, not bandwagon with it. China is more threatening for largely geographical reasons. Specifically, China is a local power in Asia; it sits either right next door or within easy striking distance of the countries in its neighborhood. The same was true of the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it was a direct threat to conquer West Germany and Japan, among other countries in Europe and Northeast Asia.
The United States, on the other hand, is much less threatening to China’s neighbors. Although America is obviously the most powerful player in the Asia-Pacific region and will remain so for some time, it is a distant great power that has never had substantial territorial designs in either Asia or Europe. The main reason is that it is too far away to engage in conquest in those regions. The United States has to project its power over huge distances as well as two massive bodies of water—the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans—just to reach those strategically important regions. Thus, there is little danger of being swallowed up or dominated by the United States, as there was with the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1990, and will be with China as it grows more powerful.
None of this is to deny that the United States has used military force against various countries in Asia and Europe. After all, it fought two major wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam) during the Cold War. The key point, however, is that the American military did not threaten to conquer and subjugate those countries, as a potent China might do.
Another dimension of America’s position in Asia highlights why it is less threatening than China’s. As a distant great power, the United States has the option of greatly reducing its military presence in that region, and it could conceivably bring all of its troops home. China obviously does not have that option. In fact, the greatest fear China’s neighbors have regarding the United States is that it will not be there for them in a crisis, not that the American military might attack and vanquish them. This is the main reason why the Obama administration announced in the fall of 2011 that the United States would “pivot to Asia,” which is a pithy way of saying it would actually increase its presence in the region. Washington was trying to reassure its Asian allies that, despite its focus on the greater Middle East and the closely related war on terror in the decade after September 11, they could still depend on the United States to guard their backs.
One might argue that China has an ace in the hole that will allow it to force at least some of its neighbors not to balance with the United States and instead bandwagon with Beijing. A number of Asian countries, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, trade extensively with China and heavily invest there as well. Thus, their prosperity is dependent on their maintaining good relations with China. This situation, so the argument goes, gives China significant economic leverage over those trading partners, which means that if they join an American-led balancing coalition, Beijing can threaten to cut economic ties and undermine their prosperity. Indeed, it should be able to use that economic leverage to coerce those countries into joining forces with China.
It is important to emphasize that in this story the Chinese economy is not seriously hurt if economic intercourse with one or more of these neighbors is curtailed or even halted. In other words, this is not a case of mutual vulnerability, which is what underpins the theory of economic interdependence, a subject I deal with below. Here there is one-way vulnerability, which is what gives Beijing the capability to blackmail its neighbors and thus undermine or at least seriously weaken any anti-China balancing coalition the United States might try to organize.